Amherst, Northampton natives bike the Baltic

Longtime friends Sasha Lansky and Bryna Cofrin-Shaw spend four weeks cycling around the Baltic Sea

  • Northampton’s Bryna Cofrin-Shaw riding east of Örebro, Sweden. She and Amherst’s Sasha Lansky completed a four-week bicycle trip around the Baltic Sea over the summer. COURTESY SASHA LANSKY

  • Amherst native Sasha Lansky, left, and Northampton native Bryna Cofrin-Shaw stand at the border between Lithuania and Latvia in June. COURTESY SASHA LANSKY

  • Northampton’s Bryna Cofrin-Shaw and Amherst’s Sasha Lansky stand by the Baltic Sea on the Curonian Spit. Lansky came up with the idea for a bike trip around the Baltic Sea after looking at maps of the Curonian Spit. COURTESY SASHA LANSKY

  • Amherst native Sasha Lansky, left, and Northampton native Bryna Cofrin-Shaw stand in a field of rapeseed along the road south of Ventspils, Latvia. The pair spent June biking around Europe. COURTESY SASHA LANSKY

@kylegrbwsk
Published: 8/24/2017 10:16:29 PM

Sasha Lansky strained against her pedals, propelling her dad’s black, steel touring bike along a Lithuanian highway.

A fierce headwind impeded progress for the Amherst native and her traveling partner, Northampton’s Bryna Cofrin-Shaw, as the two 25-year-olds attempted to finish the day’s ride, part of a four-week bicycle trip around the Baltic Sea in June.

They approached a farm stand selling strawberries. The proprietor communicated the price by typing it into a calculator since he didn’t speak English. Lansky and Cofrin-Shaw purchased a kilogram and ate the entire basket.

“It was the freshest strawberries we’d ever had,” Lansky said.

The pressures of life in New York City, graduate school and knee injuries felt far away.

Seeds of adventure

Lansky wanted an adventure like this since she was 16 years old. Summer jobs and career goals interfered.

“It always seemed like a field dream,” she said. “Someday this’ll happen.”

Someday approached on New Year’s Eve when she was looking at maps talking about adventures at a friend’s house in Amherst.

Lansky zoomed in on the Baltic Sea, focusing on an odd stretch connecting Lithuania to Kaliningrad, a semi-exclave of Russia, called the Curonian Spit.

“It’s so stunning,” Lansky said. “I went, ‘I want to bike there.’”

She wanted to bike with someone and realized Cofrin-Shaw would be available between two years of graduate school during the summer.

They’d known each other since kindergarten at The Common School in Amherst and had traveled together before. It was a perfect fit.

Cofrin-Shaw, currently enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts program at Hunter College in New York, was looking for adventure. She reached out to friends about hiking or biking trips but hadn’t committed.

“They weren’t nailed down, so I decided why not (go with Lansky)?” Cofrin-Shaw said.

Plane tickets to Europe dropped in price in February.

“We were like, ‘This is it, let’s just do it,’” Lansky said.

The pair departed Boston for Amsterdam on June 5 with one rule: they had to stay friends when the trip was over.

They started biking June 8, heading northeast from the Dutch capital. On the first day, Lansky and Cofrin-Shaw crossed the Afsluitdijk, a 20-mile causeway damming the Zuiderzee, a salt water inlet of the North Sea. They planned to cover 1,600 miles during the trip, sleeping at campsites, with friends of friends and acquaintances, or with hosts found through warmshowers.org. Warmshowers connects bicycle tourists with hosts willing to give them a place to stay for free.

During one of their first days on the road, Lansky pressed to reach a destination.

“I was feeling kind of rushed like, ‘We have to get to where we’re ending today,’” she said.

Cofrin-Shaw explained that being on the bike and doing the traveling should be more important than rushing to the destination. The advice hit Lansky like a revelation.

“Being in the saddle for the whole day, that was what we were there to do,” she said.

Her brain hadn’t switched out of New York mode yet.

New York, New York

Back in New York, Lansky typically rides between 5 and 6 a.m. in Central Park. New York’s cycling community practices before the city wakes up.

“To watch the city come alive, you sort of feel more a part of it, and you’re invigorated,” Lansky said. “It was a huge outlet with the stress that comes along with doing the work that I do.”

She worked for Human Rights Watch in the Empire State Building for three years until she left in May. Her job focused on genocide and war crimes.

“It can be pretty depressing,” Lansky said.

In addition to casual riding, Lansky competed for Dave Jordan Racing. She’d never raced bikes before despite wanting to since middle school.

“Unfortunately growing up in Amherst it’s a little bit hard to figure out how a teenager can get involved in racing,” she said.

At Amherst Regional, Lansky ran track, played ultimate and nordic skied, so she didn’t lack for athletic pursuits. She continued running at Macalester College in Minnesota and started racing bikes in a velodrome to scratch the itch.

Moving to New York after graduation in the spring of 2014 provided her first opportunity to experience road bike racing. Lansky contacted the Century Road Club Association, the oldest bike club in the country, and asked how she could get involved. The CRCA hosts a women’s development series, so Lansky decided to participate in 2015 and was invited to join the Dave Jordan Racing team.

Cofrin-Shaw moved to New York after Lansky and started applying for jobs. She lived with Lansky and decided to start racing in the series after watching her roommate. She played ultimate at Brown and missed the competitive outlet.

“I was already a cyclist, so it was an easy transition,” Cofrin-Shaw said.

One of her moms is a cyclist and started her road biking at “12 or 13,” she said. In addition to riding road bikes, Cofrin-Shaw also races cyclocross in the fall.

A few weeks into the CRCA series, both Lansky and Cofrin-Shaw wore leader’s jerseys. Lansky was first in Category 3, and Cofrin-Shaw topped Category 4. USA Cycling organizes its events into categories to balance competition. Category 1 is the highest level, and Category 5 is the lowest. Riders can move through the categories by fulfilling certain requirements.

Lansky first heard she and Cofrin-Shaw were leading their series through a May 9 email. She walked down the hall of the apartment they shared and beamed.

“I was like, ‘Aren’t you so proud? Here we are from the Pioneer Valley, look what we’re doing here in New York,” Lanksy said.

The next series update email circulated six weeks later. Instead of the standard, bold “our series leaders are,” sans serif text displayed, “with the two current series leaders out of the country this weekend, the Specialized Series Leader jerseys will be worn by Jenny Lin (Cat 4) and Shara Arnofsky (Cat 3).”

Lansky and Cofrin-Shaw received that email on the way from Festud, Norway, to Arvika, Sweden. Their phones buzzed shortly after crossing the border.

In the saddle

Before arriving in Sweden, Lansky and Cofrin-Shaw pedaled out of the Netherlands east into Germany for three days, stopping in Hamburg. They stayed for two nights with friends and needed to readjust to city life.

Each packed one dress that they changed into after cleaning and organizing 40-45 pounds of traveling gear.

“It’s a tough wake-up call coming out of the biking mode,” Lansky said. “It’s a lot of pressure. I’m in Hamburg for one day, how much can we see?”

They next turned northeast toward Lübeck and continued up the coast. Cofrin-Shaw’s knee started bothering her.

“It was tendonitis related,” she said. “We’ve traveled together before, and we’re such good friends that it was pretty easy to adapt.”

They parted briefly because of the knee issue. Cofrin-Shaw took a ferry from northern Germany to Copenhagen. Lansky caught a different ferry to southern Denmark then biked north to Copenhagen. The pair reunited and rode northwest to the coast before catching a ferry to Oslo, Norway.

Cofrin-Shaw received medication for her knee from the doctor they stayed with in Norway.

From Oslo, the pair headed east toward Sweden. Throughout the trip they rode between 75 and 95 miles on an average day. Shorter days covered between 50 and 60 miles, and their longest topped out at 109.

Gas station and grocery store dinners were common for Lansky and Cofrin-Shaw in Europe. Peanut butter and Nutella stocked their traveling bags along with yogurt and bread. The pair sampled local cookies and biscuits to maximize their caloric intake.

“When you’re riding 85 miles a day, you can eat whatever you want,” Lansky said.

They also ate when hosts provided meals and varied their diet depending on the region. Smoked salmon was affordable in Scandinavia. They found black bread in Lithuania and Germany, where they headed after departing Stockholm.

The journey continued south to Nynäshamn, then a ferry took Lansky and Cofrin-Shaw across the Baltic Sea to Latvia. They pedaled southwest through to Lithuania and arrived at the Curonian Spit, Lansky’s inspiration.

“Unfortunately it’s pretty impossible to get transit visas to go across Kaliningrad, this annexed piece of Russia,” Lansky said.

It wasn’t worth the hassle of obtaining travel visas to bike across busy roads filled with trucks where everything would be written in Cyrillic, and people were less likely to speak English.

Instead of biking, Lansky and Cofrin-Shaw rode a bus around to Poland then biked through Poland to Berlin, ending the trip in Germany after 1,200 miles.

“It was probably a little bit frustrating (not to get into Kaliningrad), but I think I was trying to keep an open positive mind and to not be so stuck to plans,” Lansky said. “I’m somebody that likes to do a lot of planning.”

Four months on the road together didn’t sour their relationship. Their years of friendship and cohabitation helped snuff out potential conflicts before they arose.

They stayed friends, just like they promised.

“I’m impressed we didn’t get more angry at each other spending that much time together,” Lansky said.

After finishing their cycling trip, the pair spent two weeks relaxing with some of Lansky’s friends in France, where she previously studied abroad.

After coming back to the states, Cofrin-Shaw attended a writing retreat later in the summer and will return for her second year of graduate school in the fall.

“I think it’s important and empowering for young women, especially, to know they can do things by themselves,” she said. “Any young woman who has an opportunity to (travel on their own), it’s really beneficial.”

Lansky will start grad school at Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy when summer ends.

“There is that total addiction of being able to push yourself physically every single day. I just have to make sure when the school starts I continue to do that,” she said. “That’s the hardest to let go, being able to just enjoy being outside.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com.




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